When the world embarked on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, there was an air of optimism as nations pledged to achieve 169 goals by 2030. But the coronavirus pandemic has assumed this schedule a serious blow by reversing human progress for the first time in decades, pushing millions into extreme poverty and deepening inequalities.
The person in charge of recovering the SDGs is Achim Steiner, the administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Steiner, who has just begun his second term, faces a daunting challenge.
Warning that the world is facing a development emergency, he says the Achilles heel of global economic recovery is the growing number of countries facing vaccine disparity and debt distress.
It also wants to make sure that the poorest nations are not literally left in the dust of coal, as the richest countries invest hundreds of billions of dollars in the transition to green energy.
Radmilla Suleymanova, senior business producer at Al Jazeera Digital, met with Steiner this week to talk about vaccine equity, how to boost global energy, and how richer countries can help make it all happen. humanity beyond the current crisis of COVID-19.
* This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Radmilla Suleymanova: As head of UNDP, what is the first thing you hope to achieve in your second term?
Achim Steiner: To get the international community to understand the fundamentals of supporting each other to move towards the recovery of development. Right now we are highly vulnerable. In some parts of the world, we are almost at the point where we believe the pandemic is under control, and in other parts only one or two percent of the population has been vaccinated. This is a recipe for disaster.
RS: How has the pandemic altered the trajectory to reach the SDGs?
AS: For example, in Latin America and the Caribbean, we have seen 22 million people return to extreme poverty in the last year. These are levels that take us back to 2008. That means we have lost 13 years of progress. It is the first time in 30 years that we see an investment in global human development.
But, as we have seen in countries that have been able to mobilize significant public funding and have access to vaccines, there could be a recovery almost like a V-shape, where there is a very sharp drop and then a relatively rapid recovery. But two things here are problematic. Virus mutations are a big risk for everyone. And in the developing world, and especially on the African continent, we see what it means not to be able to vaccinate your population.
DGSs remain valid as always, but the pace of progress has slowed. And yet, with the mobilization of hundreds of billions of dollars for a green recovery, we can come out of it with an accelerated approach to implementing sustainable energy development goals.
RS: You mentioned that the world has a unique opportunity to move towards a greener future. Do you hope this happens?
AS: I have reasons not to be hopeless. This is a time of deep disruption. People are losing confidence in the future, in governments, in their health systems. But if you have a slightly more historical perspective, sometimes out of the darkest moments come some of the boldest answers.
These inequality problems we perceived were problematic before the pandemic: we can address them. I often say that it is fascinating that it took a group of 13, 14, 15 year olds to lead the world to the point that he said yes, we need to start acting and suddenly we see an ecological deal in Europe with 800 billion euros ($ 955 billion) mobilized. This is a time of transformation. Nothing is a fact, but nothing also tells us that we cannot do this.
RS: What about the waiver of patent protections for COVID-19 strikes? What is the priority?
AS: We have a very divided world in terms of those who have access to vaccines and those who don’t. So right now we need to focus on accelerating vaccine production and increasing post-production capacity, but also delivery because we need to get these vaccines, not just at the airport of a country, but in the arms of billions of citizens.
Intellectual property rights have been identified as a restriction on the rapid increase in production by India and South Africa. But let me add as well, as those who are skeptical about it have pointed out, and are also right, that we can do other things, so it’s not just about intellectual property rights.
From the darkest moments come some of the boldest answers.
RS: True, many large pharmaceutical companies say that patents are not necessarily the problem. What is missing is the infrastructure to make more vaccines in the countries that need them most. What has the pandemic taught the United Nations about drug manufacturing and sustainable development?
AS: It reminded us of a very bitter lesson that goes back to the AIDS epidemic and the tenure of Kofi Annan as general secretary, who, along with the CEOs of the major pharmaceutical companies, brought the industry together and said we had of having differentiated pricing systems for developing countries and markets of developed countries.
Patent rights have been a very important accelerator of research and development, but, in the discovery of drugs, they have been questioned in recent years. There is an almost unwanted perverse incentive to ignore many diseases because they are simply not commercially attractive enough.
RS: The International Monetary Fund has debated the allocation of about $ 650 billion in new Special Labor Rights [SDRs, IMF’s reserve asset created from a basket of currencies] to help nations recover from the COVID-19 crisis. UNDP calls on richer countries to redirect their SDR reserves to help developing and poor countries. What would this help and do you think would have a big impact?
AS: This $ 650 billion Special Labor Rights allocation is the IMF’s largest capital allocation since World War II. And if you take all the high-income countries, they would get $ 438 billion out of $ 650 billion. If money just stayed there, not only would it be a very strange way to deal with a global development emergency, but you would actually miss an extraordinary opportunity to get richer countries to address what they are interested in: to quickly contain the virus, reversing a global economic recovery and also addressing some of the deepest challenges.
RS: Debt growth seems like a growing challenge.
AS: Right now, the biggest Achilles heel for global economic recovery is the growing number of countries potentially facing debt distress, and right now about 60 percent of all nations in development they are in a situation of debt distress. The initiative to suspend debt services and the framework that the G20 [Group of 20 nations] adopted were useful measures, but they are inadequate. If we are not careful, a fraction of the IMF’s $ 650 billion Special Labor Rights will end up in the countries facing the biggest challenge.
RS: Climate action is one of the main goals of the SDGs. How do poor nations position themselves to cope with climate change compared to developing economies that spend hundreds of millions of dollars on green infrastructure?
AS: By 2021 there are more than 800 million people worldwide who do not have access to electricity. However, it is a remarkable number considering that this is a perfectly solvable problem. Energy poverty, access to electricity, is a key variable in development and in the fight against poverty and illiteracy. I think the real problem right now is, we can, as an international community, help developing countries invest in their energy infrastructure, help them with access to technology, concessional financing so that they can invest in renewable and clean energy infrastructure. ? Can we mobilize the capital? In many ways, the energy revolution has already begun.
RS: China no longer builds coal-fired power plants within its borders, as it strives to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, but Beijing continues to fund the construction of coal-fired power plants outside its borders, particularly in developing countries. development. Do you admit it?
AS: As for a bugle call, the message is very clear: investing in coal is investing in yesterday’s energy systems. China, as one of the largest investors in the world but also producers of renewable energy infrastructure, must now try to intensify access to this technology as a central pillar of its support for energy infrastructure in developing countries. . And China has already canceled many of its coal-fired energy projects that were in the making in the developing world.
However, this is not just China’s responsibility. The developing countries themselves ultimately do not want to be included in a technology of yesterday. It is the international community that now has to show the developing world that it is seriously concerned about joint investment in clean energy infrastructure for developing countries.